December 7, 2016

Talking avocado obsessions, hosting five course dinner parties and aspiring to be a mermaid with food blogger, Renee Byrd. She shares with us her positive attitude towards a delicious, plant-based diet and of course her recipe for a batch of tahini cookies dipped in chocolate. Over to you, Renee.

UO: Have you always loved to cook or did you develop an interest later in life?

I’ve definitely always loved food, especially vegetables. But I didn’t develop a real passion for cooking until I was in college. When I was 19 I started getting really interested in holistic nutrition and yoga and wellness. And all of my friends at the time were vegan or vegetarian, which I thought was just so amazing. My crew was on the extreme side of bohemian, hippie lifestyle. Imagine: tie-dye shirts, long conversations about astrology, poetry potlucks and beautiful long-haired musicians playing sitar. But what I remember is: spicy vegan curry, banana avocado chocolate pudding, adventures in durian, raw vegan maca chili date chocolate fudge and spirulina smoothies. This was 2009 and the boho coolness of smoothie bowls was not a thing yet. And I just thought it was the most radical, cool underground thing I had ever encountered. I dove head first into that ocean and found I was made for it! I’m trying really hard not to make a mermaid allusion but… well… there you have it! I’m a plant-based mermaid. Yeah, I said it.

UO: What do you love most about following a largely plant-based diet?

To me, plant-based eating is self-care. I love the way I feel, eating this way. I feel healthy and free! I also rarely get sick now, which for me is incredible! I’ve had chronic sinus infections since I was a little kid. And I used to get strep throat and bronchitis every year. Now I get maybe one sinus infection a year, and it goes away naturally within a couple of days. That’s really a huge factor for me, along with how easy it is to maintain a healthy weight. I used to be really neurotic about my eating and it really took over my life at one point. But yoga and mindfulness and eating a plant-powered diet really turned me around. Now 99% of my diet is plant-based on a daily basis. But I’ll totally eat some freshly caught ocean fish or some raw milk if I get the chance. You have to be flex or you just get in this weird zealous bubble and it all becomes very dogmatic. I’m anti-dogma, at my core. I also just really love fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains! I find plant-based eating infinitely exciting and inspiring.

UO: What are your favourite dairy-free treats for this time of year?

I love these tahini cookies of course! But I’m not really much of a sugar-fiend. But most days I generally go for dates filled with cashew butter or tahini, topped with chopped dark chocolate. Simple, lazy and delicious.

UO: Could you share with us your top tips for great food photography?

Use natural light. Invest in a DSLR (and learn the settings). When you’re shooting, move your feet so you are getting shots from all angles. I typically take 100 or more shots for a blog post, because I like to have lots of options and just see what happens. Study the styles of photographers you love. Play around with mimicking the way those photographers create their scenes. Notice how they arrange dishes, what types of textures and colors they’re using. Play! Let the playfulness of it all inspire you and follow your gut. Don’t worry about perfection. Shoot every day.

UO: How do you like to dress your table for Christmas dinner?

I have yet to host my own Christmas dinner, actually! My family lives all over, so I usually end up at my parents’ dinner table. They’re very traditional, and it’s one of only a few times a year that they get to use their fine gold-rimmed china and heirloom silver utensils, goblets and candlesticks. We usually set the table with some beautiful red flowers and greenery and cream linen napkins with agate napkin rings. My family relishes the opportunity to make the Christmas table glamorous. But I’m pretty sure we’re all more interested in looking as glamorous as possible ourselves! Everyone puts on their most effortlessly chic outfit with the hopes of getting to say “what this old thing?” Ha!

UO: What three ingredients would we always find in your cupboards?

Onions, coconut oil and good quality Celtic sea salt. I use onions in just about everything savory. Caramelizing onions is an almost daily occurrence in my kitchen. Coconut oil goes in just about everything. Savory, sweet, you name it! I also use it as a moisturizer. It’s a lifesaver in the winter, perfect for my ultra dry skin. Good quality sea salt is a must, and a mineral rich salt is great for replenishing electrolytes. I get dehydrated really easily and I have low blood pressure, so it’s an essential part of my diet.

UO: What has been your biggest culinary achievement, and the biggest culinary failure?

A chef-friend and I hosted and cooked a 5-course plant-based dinner party for 14 friends this past summer. It was a ton of work! But the creative process was so stimulating, the work completely absorbing. Seeing the final table loaded down with food and the look on everyone’s faces was so priceless. It was such a gift, getting to offer a vegetarian meal to omnivores who actually applauded us at the end of the night. I was exhausted as we cleaned up. But I would do it again in a heartbeat!

My biggest failure… well there have been numerous recipe failures over the years! That’s the life of a food blogger, of course. My most memorable failure was when I tried to make gluten free jam thumbprint cookies (trying to impress a chef friend) and they melted into one giant crumbly cookie mess. We were at her place, and it was pretty embarrassing, and the worst part was that I was like “NBD I got this lol lol lol.” I did NOT got this. Not at all. I think we crumbled it over ice cream or something. I’m probably in denial that we threw it away….

UO: What is your creation process when putting together new recipes?

I’m what you would call a “pantser.” It’s a word used in the writing world to refer to people who “fly by the seat of their pants.” Improvisers, in other words. I’m definitely an improviser by nature, and most of my recipes start out as an improvisation based on whatever’s in my cupboard. Or maybe I got some produce at the market that’s glowing with possibilities. I’ll test a recipe a couple of times after the first attempt to refine it. Sometimes I plan recipe ideas out, but very loosely. I’ve learned to listen to my gut and make the thing that is the most inspiring to me in the moment, and tweak it as I go. This is really why I’ve pulled away from doing too much baking, as baking is very precise and scientific. It’s so easy to muck up a baked good, and I never know the right fix. But it’s a breeze to fix a slightly lame chili or lackluster raw vegan cheesecake!

UO: What is your favourite way to spend the holiday season?

I am very much an introvert, so I like spending the winter season doing inwardly focused things. The cold is the perfect excuse to stay inside and be cosy! I love reading and writing poetry so I spend a great deal of my energy focused on that. I have to actively push myself to spend time with people, as the Winter brings out the hermit in me. I’m completely content being a hermit, I love the beautiful world I’ve created for myself! But honestly I’m really thankful for my band (I sing and play percussion) as we get to play Christmas shows, and those are always festive and fun. And my husband and I always go to Brooklyn for “our” Christmas, just the two of us. We eat everything in sight and drink all the coffee and window-shop all of the weird wonders of hipster-land. It’s exceedingly dreamy and romantic.

UO: What is your go-to recipe for everyday ease?

Almost every day I make some sort of soup or stew. That’s really my comfort zone, it’s the easiest thing to make that can also be a pinch creative. I always start with caramelized onions and garlic. Then in goes water or broth, a can of fire roasted tomatoes, some seasonal veggies and spices to match. I always toss in a legume of some sort, tofu or beans or lentils. And I’ll often throw in some brown rice pasta, quinoa or millet. I add some vinegar to perk it up and usually a bit of coconut milk for creaminess. I feel like almost everything I’ve been making for dinner these days is based on that. I often make a double batch and have it for lunch the next day too. That makes it doubly excellent for everyday ease!

UO: What inspires your recipes?

Seasonal produce. New spice blends. Reading cookbooks. Wandering around the local farmers market and thinking about all of the possibilities. The fruit and berries I get out of my garden. Deep cravings for bread, for chocolate, for greens. The desire for comfort and coziness and relaxation. Being in nature. Traveling to new places. Eating at excellent restaurants. Cooking with friends. I find inspiration everywhere.


Out of breakfast, lunch and dinner, my favourite is…

Breakfast is probably my favorite, but that’s just because I almost always eat avocado for breakfast! And avocado is my favorite thing. I love dinner because that’s my time to play and improvise in the kitchen. That’s when I cook just for me and my husband. I get a lot of my best ideas while I’m making dinner.

Out of summer and winter, I’d choose…

Can we just split the difference and say… that one month in-between spring/summer and fall/winter that’s 70 degrees and sunny every day? K.

If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life…

Avocado… on toasted sourdough spelt bread… with berbere sprinkled over top! Ok maybe throw a drizzle of tahini in there too.

My hero ingredient is…

Tahini. For sure. I swear I put it in everything. It’s such a humble seed-butter but it makes everything taste special and exotic.

My favourite sweet treat is…

A sun-ripened peach… blueberries right off the branch… fresh pineapple or mango or passionfruit. I love raw fruit! And everything tropical. But I love ultra dark chocolate possibly a smidgen more.

Cocoalte Dipped Tahini Cookies


3/4 cup (130g) evaporated cane sugar or coconut sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice (~1/2 lemon)
1 cup (256g) tahini
3 1/2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted (if using spelt you might need ~1 tablespoon more)
1/2 cup (40g) coconut flour
1/2 cup (80g) chickpea flour OR spelt (wheat) flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup (150g) mixed black and white raw sesame seeds

Chocolate Dip

3 oz chopped chocolate, chopped (or chocolate chips)
1 tbsp coconut oil


Preheat your oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, rub together the lemon zest and sugar — this releases the oils from the zest into the sugar.

Add the lemon juice and tahini to the sugar, stirring to combine. The mixture will form into a thick, malleable nut butter dough.

In a separate medium mixing bowl, stir together the coconut flour, chickpea flour OR spelt (wheat) flour, baking powder, and salt.

Add the flour mixture to the nut butter mixture and knead everything together with your hands to combine. NOTE: If using spelt flour, your mixture might come out a bit dry or crumbly. If so, add up to 1 more tablespoon coconut oil until the mixture becomes malleable and sticks together.

Roll the dough into 1″-1.5″ balls and coat each one in sesame seeds. Flatten each cookie out to about 1/2” thickness, setting each cookie on the sheet 1 inch apart. Soften any cracked edges with your fingers (they don’t spread in the oven).

Bake the cookies on the center rack for 10 minutes, or until they become slightly golden brown on top. They will still feel squishy to touch on top, but they solidify as they cool. Let rest out of the oven for about 10 minutes before dipping in chocolate. Dip each cookie half-way in the chocolate, then set back on the cookie sheet to cool.

Eat immediately or set the cookies in the fridge or freezer for 15 minutes to solidify the chocolate. Best enjoyed with a cup of coffee or tea!

Chocolate Dip

Set a double boiler (or a glass bowl over a pan filled with water) over low eat. Add the coconut oil. Once the coconut oil is melted stir in the chocolate. Cut off the heat and set aside for 5 minutes. Stir the chocolate and coconut oil together until combined. Done!